Creating a Movement Around Recycling

Leveraging social marketing techniques to change behavior.

Lena Davie and Karen Vickers

How do you really move people to change? To change the way they think and act? Social marketing is one way to create long-lasting change. It may sound like an abstract term, but we’ll bet many of you practice social marketing, to some extent, every day, especially those of you who communicate to the public.

In this article we’ll talk about the basic tenants of social marketing as they apply mainly to recycling campaigns (but the theory can apply to almost any need), how to develop a campaign that reaches your target audience, and we’ll share with you an exciting and successful campaign launched last year in the state of Georgia.

Social marketing 101

Wikipedia defines social marketing as “the systematic application of marketing, along with other concepts and techniques, to achieve specific behavioral goals for a social good.” Simply put, if you are trying to influence behavior change, you are most likely using social marketing. Some examples of social marketing campaigns include:

  • Your Brain on Drugs,” sponsored by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

  • Smokey the Bear, Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires” for the USDA Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters.

  • The “Crying Indian” series for Keep America Beautiful.

5 Steps of Social Marketing … from the Trenches

To truly understand social marketing, we encourage you to read Fostering Sustainable Behavior, An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing, written by Doug McKenzie-Mohr, a leading expert in social marketing. It is a complicated topic, with lots of theory, but the basics, once mastered, can be truly powerful.

Our experience in social marketing, coupled with learnings from experts such as McKenzie-Mohr, have lead us to recommend six stages for launching your campaign.

Assess the situation

Self-reflection and information gathering are integral first steps. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What do you want your audience to do/not do?
  • What are you going to do to make the behavior more desirable?
  • How will you communicate?
  • What is your time frame?
  • What resources will you need (staff, budget, materials)?
  • How will you know if you are successful?


Ideally, you’d conduct quantitative (surveys) and qualitative research (focus groups, interviews) to truly understand your target audience. Or, you’d conduct field observations to see what people are actually doing. If money is limited, you can even convene a group of peers, friends, etc. and ask about their particular actions and behaviors.

So that you can message properly, you will need to uncover barriers that exist to the action you want residents to take, as well as any motivators. Barriers could include, in the case of recycling, not having a curbside bin or lack of information. A motivator could be relating personal impact to recycling. Identifying these issues will help you develop a campaign that addresses them head on.

Community example: In Kansas City, recycling officials were struggling with how to engage residents in their “urban core”. They conducted research to uncover which residents were most likely to be motivated to recycle (those who already have bins but were not using), what mediums would reach these residents (direct mail, urban radio and personal interaction) and most interestingly, what influencers in the community would be the best messengers (business leaders and pastors, not government officials.)

Plan and Develop

With information in hand, you must now devise your plan and develop your campaign. Your plan should include a timeline of activities, strategies and the basic tools of social marketing that you will be using. Your campaign development should include key messages, the creative “look and feel” of your campaign (could include enhancements to your Web site, print ads, PSAs, etc.) and all materials you’ll need (press releases, talking points, etc.) Once developed, then you launch your campaign.

First, take a look at some popular social marketing tools. Certain ones are often included in social marketing campaigns and include securing a commitment from your residents, developing norms and the use of prompts. A commitment could include having residents sign a pledge or petition, or even requesting a curbside bin. Research shows that once a commitment is made, residents are more likely to follow through. A second tool is using/developing norms that enforce the desired behavior (for example, touting all of the people in your town who recycle) or conversely, if you want to deter a behavior such as littering, you would want to depict that behavior as un-popular. A third tool is the use of prompts, or reminders. These can reinforce a commitment. An example would be a sticker that adheres to a curbside bin with set out information and days. Ideally, you would never give a resident a prompt, for example, without talking with them first. A prompt should serve as reinforcement of a conversation, not a replacement.

Community example: The North Carolina recycling campaign uses a number of these techniques. At events they distribute T-shirts and bottle openers to residents who talk with them about recycling.


With a plan, and tools in place, you want to kick things off. Many may opt to take things slowly and conduct a pilot among a smaller segment of the population first before investing in a larger campaign. Pilots are often less expensive than a full-scale effort, and initial results can be observed fairly quickly. Or, if you need maximum impact soon, you can launch to the community as a whole, as long as you plan to observe and assess the impact and effectiveness of your efforts along the way.

Campaign activation usually includes the rollout of the campaign in some public way (such as an event, media outreach or the launch of a Web site) as well as ongoing communications. True social marketing campaigns often last several years so you will want to plan accordingly. You don’t want to unveil all of your campaign “bells and whistles” at once, rather, spread them out over the duration of the campaign. This way your messages remain interesting and fresh.


Hopefully, your research provided you with a benchmark by which to measure success. These benchmarks could include consumer awareness for the issue (did it move?), historical recycling data (did we grow?) or other measures. But regardless of what you measure, you must measure. True social marketing is based on evaluation. Otherwise, you will not know what success looks like. It is also important to measure along the way. Some measures such as Web traffic and participation rates can serve as early indicators that your campaign is on the right track.


An effective campaign will need to educate, remind and reinforce over time. Sustaining activities could include developing and unveiling new tools, expanding your outreach (if you started with a pilot) and using new mediums. For example, if you launched a campaign heavily relying on public relations and PSAs, for example, you may want to expand after 6 to 12 months to online tools like Facebook or Flickr. Engaging third parties (such as local Keep America Beautiful affiliates) can also help sustain efforts, while also giving you access to new audiences.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Social Marketing


  • Be clear from the beginning about what specific behavior you want to change.
  • Evaluate what barriers are deterring your residents.
  • Perform surveys, focus groups, etc., to hear from your residents directly.
  • Make your service indispensable to your residents.
  • Recognize the demographics of your market.
  • Plan ahead—develop a budget for marketing that you can live with.
  • Look for low-cost advertising and promotional methods.
  • Pilot your program on a smaller segment of the population first.
  • Continually reevaluate and measure your efforts and adjust as needed.


  • Lose touch with your residents.
  • Try to communicate too many messages.
  • Assume you know why your residents behave the way they do.
  • Gloss over your program’s weaknesses.
  • Forget to track bins requests, set-out rates, etc., and compare to the previous year.
  • Try to be everything to everybody—you cannot satisfy everyone.
  • Advertise in media that does not reach your target audience.

You Gotta Be Kidding! A Look at a Social Marketing Campaign in Georgia

In 2005, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) conducted a solid waste characterization study that revealed that Georgians are burying 2.6 million tons of recyclables (worth $250 million) in landfills annually. When Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue learned of this, he told DCA to “go big and go bold” to improve recycling in the state. So we did.

We started by setting goals for recycling. The goals were set on a per capita and commodity specific basis, which stakeholders felt to be a more accurate reflection of recycling performance than goals based on “recycling rates” or diversion goals (see Figure 1, page xx).

Goals were meaningless without ways to measure them. So a series of measurement metrics were established, one of which included conducting follow-up waste disposal characterization studies. An online data capture system was also implemented.

The final crucial element of the recycling strategy was the development of an innovative and creative social marketing campaign to reach Georgians. DCA and Hill & Knowlton partnered to develop a campaign to catch the attention of Georgians and to motivate real behavior change.

The Social Marketing Campaign: How We Got There

With tight budgets throughout the state, any campaign would have to be based on solid research and reach the target audience. By conducting phone surveys and focus groups, we found out a few things that helped shape the campaign:

  • 45 percent of Georgians do not regularly recycle. This group was identified as the target audience, with 25- to 34-year-olds being the focus, as they are the easiest to reach and motivate.

  • Lack of curbside recycling in communities, followed by lack of information, are the biggest barriers.

  • Non-recyclers are busy and do not pay attention to recycling.

Campaign Development

The “same old” recycling education campaign would not be effective at engaging the target audience. So a very untraditional approach was decided on by highlighting the “lame” excuses Georgia residents give for not recycling. Instead of touting the benefits of recycling, the campaign paints a humorous picture of the “non-recycler.” Using a cast of characters who proudly proclaim “I Don’t Recycle!” it shows just how absurd even the most ordinary excuses are. Billboards, bus shelters, print ads and bilingual radio PSAs drive residents to a Web site, aptly named The site contains several unique features including a character blog, Flickr gallery and Facebook Cause/Fan pages. Research showed us first-hand the power a “recycling” conversation can have on motivating behavioral change. The campaign focused on initializing this conversation, whether it arises from someone seeing a “I Don’t Recycle” T-shirt or reading a drink coaster that says “Does dating my Ex count as recycling?”

We realized early on that even the best campaign would be a failure if no one was using it. Communities and other stakeholders would have to embrace it to be successful. So, a suite of free tools was created specifically for them, one of which was a unique Web site called Campaign Central. Here, they can learn all about the campaign, download creative materials, access tips and tools, and share successes.

The campaign launched in the summer of 2009 and long-term results are still pending. But momentum is strong: 170 stakeholders, representing over 100 communities, have used and adapted the campaign, over 300 events have been held promoting the campaign, buzz is tremendous in the state and beyond, and most importantly, we know that thousands of Georgians have been reached.

Lena Davie is a Vice President in the Tampa, FL office of Hill & Knowlton, an international public relations firm. She has helped clients plan and execute social marketing campaigns for more than 10 years.

Karen Vickers is a Program Coordinator with the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, Office of Environmental Management providing technical assistance to local governments throughout the State. She has 15 years of experience overseeing state and local solid waste and recycling programs. 

Check out the Georgia campaign at